Globally handling uncaught exceptions and signals in C++

If you have a sementation fault in your C++ program, the program crashes and this is printed to standard error:

Segmentation fault (core dumped)

It tells you that a core dump has been created if your system was configured to do so. You can use it to further debug the crash, but when you have a quick look at the error message, you learn near to nothing about the cause of the crash.

Similarly, when there is an uncaught exception in your code, the following is printed (again to standard error):

terminate called after throwing an instance of 'std::runtime_error'
what():  Hello, world!
Aborted (core dumped)

Again, you can use the core dump, but why not let the program print a stack trace to help you find the location where the segfault or exception occurred and the call chain that lead to it, just as many other languages do?


The following was tested with gcc 4.8.2 running under Fedora 19 and I’m not sure how portable this all is. Just try it on the platform(s) of your choice 😉

Printing a stack trace

gcc/glibc provides us with backtrace(), backtrace_symbols(), and backtrace_symbols_fd() from execinfo.h, which can be used to generate a binary stack trace (backtrace()) and convert it to a nicely formatted array of strings (backtrace_symbols()) or directly print it to a file descriptor, e.g. stderr (backtrace_symbols_fd()).

This is how you do it in code, with a maximum number of 20 entries in your stack trace:

void *array[20];
size_t size = backtrace(array, sizeof(array) / sizeof(array[0]));
backtrace_symbols_fd(array, size, STDERR_FILENO);

The result looks something like that:


You can see that the method names are mangled, but at least you can approximate the location of the error.

For this to work properly, you need to call g++ with -rdynamic, so that the linker exports all symbols. But how do we print the stack trace when our program crashes? Enter signal and terminate handlers…

Adding a signal handler

To catch segmentation faults, you can register a signal handler that is called when your programm receives a SIGSEGV signal (segmentation violation, code 11). This is done through signal() from signal.h:

void signalHandler(int sig) { /* print stacktrace */ }
signal(SIGSEGV, signalHandler);

Adding a terminate handler

When an exception in a C++ program is not caught by try-catch, std::terminate() is called before the program aborts. In fact, the default implementation simply calls abort(), but you can do something meaningful beforehand. This is how you register a terminate handler with std::set_terminate as defined by the exception header:

void terminateHandler() { /* print stacktrace */ }

Accessing the uncaught exception from the terminate handler

Now you get a chance to print a stack trace on termination, but you probably also want to print the exception that caused the crash. This caused some headache, but finally I got the following:

std::exception_ptr exptr = std::current_exception();
try {
catch (std::exception &ex) {
    std::fprintf(stderr, "Terminated due to exception: %s\n", ex.what());

The solution uses the std::current_exception() method introduced by C++11 (compile with -std=c++0x or -std=c++11). It returns an exception_ptr object that has only one meaningful use: It can be rethrown, which we do to finally catch and process it.

Putting it all together

I built a small demo project that first installs a signal handler and a terminate handler and then crashes the program randomly either by dereferencing a null pointer to cause a segfault, or by throwing an uncaught exception.

Hope I could help 🙂 Please leave a comment if you want to add something I missed. If you like what you just read, you can also follow me on GitHub or star the demo project repo.

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  1. You should catch(…) in case std::current_exception reference to exception that doesn’t derive from std::exception (e.g. the given code will miss throw 42;).

    It’s a good post!

    1. That’s right, but try printing ex.what() on an int 😉 Since I have never written or used code that throws anything other than std::exception, I usually omit handling other exceptions when doing so gives me an advantage, like in this case.

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